Graymont College’s Prof. Stephen Chesterfield, the less-is-more creative writing teacher who appears early on in Joshua Henkin’s second novel Matrimony, hates sound effects in stories (“kerplunk,” “kaboom”), the phrase “show, don’t tell” in workshop criticism, and “pass-the-salt dialogue”: “If your characters need salt, just give it to them. Don’t make them have a discussion about it.”
But then Julian Wainwright, the wealthy New York freshman who serves as protagonist of the novel, suggests that saying “Pass the salt” after someone has just told you that his father just died shows you’re not listening, and Prof. Chesterfield beams.
Immediately, Julian’s classmate Carter Heinz, a Californian with a chip on his shoulder, adds that he’d have a character ask a quadriplegic to pass the salt, and Prof. Chesterfield calls him brilliant.
About 130 pages into Matrimony, Henkin places struggling novelist Julian, now teaching comp at Michigan while his wife gets her doctorate in psychology, at a Berkeley restaurant with Carter, now a dot-com millionaire about to graduate from law school. After he’s seated, Julian says, “So this is the famous Chez Panisse. Do you eat here often?”
And then, later in the novel, Carter says, “I’ve got my own chair here,” a few minutes before a walk-on by a real-life celebrity prompts him to ask, “Do you realize who that was? . . . Alice Waters? Chef and owner of Chez Panisse? Spawner of a culinary revolution?”
It ain’t pass-the-salt dialogue but it’s embarrassingly clumsy. Happily, it’s a rare misfire in an otherwise believable and compelling story that manages to overcome the handicap of having a creative writing student and novelist at its center.
Matrimony chronicles the college romance and marriage of Julian, sensitive son of wealthy Sutton Place parents, and Mia, dutiful daughter of a Jewish physicist and a mother whose losing battle with breast cancer provides the novel’s most resonant passages. Descriptions of the ups and downs of Julian and Mia’s courtship and marriage are both quirky and dreamy; domestic scenes like dinners at ethnic restaurants, hanging out with friends in university towns, and an idyllic trip to Boston continue to provide quotidian but pleasant moments throughout the novel.
Henkin has a great eye for the everyday; his prose comes most alive when he’s chronicling ordinary moments in these scenes from a marriage and the streets of Manhattan, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Iowa City, and the fictional Northington, Massachusetts.
All the characters are nice people living quiet lives of aspiration, so the novel’s major conflict, leading to the separation of Julian and Mia when she’s going for her doctorate in psychology in Ann Arbor, feels forced. The way he’s been presented up to then, Julian would be far too decent, understanding and level-headed to leave Mia after finding out about her long-ago one-time sexual encounter with his best friend Carter when all were still single. Julian’s disappearance from the novel for pages and pages seems like one of those episodes in a soap opera when a character is temporarily written out due to the actor’s illness or movie role, the reason for his absence a contrived plot device.
Finally the temporarily single Julian turns up at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where he and his understated fiction don’t seem to fit in:
The story was quiet; all his work was. Perhaps it was a matter of differing aesthetics. There had emerged in American fiction a strain of excess, he believed, a group of knowing authors whose every sentence seemed to shout, “Look how smart I am.” He had nothing against muscular prose; it was the flexing of those muscles that he objected to, and, along with it, a disregard for character, which, for him, was what fiction was about.
Julian drops out of Iowa; he reconciles with Mia and their marriage thrives as they move to New York; at their fifteenth college reunion, he even reconciles with Carter. Julian finally finishes and sells his novel after years of daily struggle (there’s surprisingly little space given to this); Carter finally finishes his novel too, and Julian is sure it’s good; Prof. Stephen Chesterfield, alas, has worse luck. Their creative writing teacher’s forty-year project turns out to be “uninspiring” and even “terrible” despite the “more than adequate writing.”
“Sometimes a writer’s personality gets in the way,” Julian tells Carter.
Joshua Henkin’s personality doesn’t get in the way of Matrimony, which can be seen as a radical experiment in chronicling the activities of a likeable couple and their friends and family, homage to classic comedies of manners, or a terrific beach book for MFAs. Despite the lack of real drama, I enjoyed it a great deal. Henkin’s quiet moments add up to a satisfying read and quiet refuge from the fireworks of more combustible novels. If you’re like Julian, the kind of reader for whom character is what fiction is about, you’ll enjoy Matrimony too.
Richard Grayson is the author of Highly Irregular Stories, With Hitler in New York, The Silicon Valley Diet, and other books. A retired teacher and lawyer, he divides his time between Brooklyn and Phoenix.
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